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Riding and Dying With Philip Rivers

The 34-year-old signal-caller is the last great San Diego Charger, but his typical magic likely won’t be enough to give the local fans one final playoff run

Getty/Casey Moore
Getty/Casey Moore

I do not envy San Diego Chargers fans. They’re likely about to lose their team, confirming one of the most depressing truths of sports fandom: If your team’s owner could trade your lifelong loyalty for a sum of money slightly larger than what you’d spend on tickets and merchandise before you die, he would do it without thinking too hard.

But in addition to the long-term sorrow of potentially losing a franchise, San Diego fans have had to watch one of the more painful NFL seasons in recent memory. The Chargers aren’t bad. In fact, they’ve been competitive in every game they’ve played this season, thanks to the second-best scoring offense in football. And yet they’re dead last in the AFC West.

They have lost due to massive comebacks by opponents; they have lost due to their own thrilling comebacks that didn’t have quite enough gas. They have lost due to fumbles, they have lost due to interceptions. Against the Raiders, they lost when holder Drew Kaser couldn’t put the ball down for Josh Lambo to attempt a game-tying field goal.

Sunday, they lost to the Dolphins due to the miscues of their best player, Philip Rivers. The 34-year-old played quite well for three quarters. But his fourth quarter was disastrous. He threw four interceptions, including one with a little over a minute left in a tie game that was returned by Kiko Alonso for a game-winning touchdown.

In an excruciating year, this loss really excruciated. If the Chargers had won, they would be 5–5 and still in the playoff hunt despite all the trauma. But Rivers threw a pick on the 2-yard line, ending one scoring chance, and he later turned a potential game-winning drive for the Chargers into the game-winning score for the Dolphins. We often hear of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Rivers snatched victory and hurled it to defeat, over and over and over, and one more time for good measure.

But Rivers’s four-pick fourth quarter is emblematic of this year’s Chargers. Rivers is a great quarterback. You can and should ride with him, but if you ask him to do too much, you will also die with him, and it will be painful.

I’d like to apologize for not taking Philip Rivers seriously. I never talk about how good of a quarterback he is. I almost always talk about how silly his face is. As a person with a silly face, I shouldn’t talk, but man, that’s a silly face!

For some people, the Manning brothers are the NFL’s premier face makers. But they’re merely new interpretations of the same bewildered, goofy template we’ve been seeing since the 1990s. Rivers’s facial expressions run the gamut. His joy is so joyous, his intensity is so intense, his fury is so furious, his sadness is so sad. If he were to retire at the end of this season and follow the Chargers to Los Angeles, he’d never get a gig as an actor because he oversells everything. There’s no way anyone can truly feel that much emotion at once, right?

Of course, Rivers doesn’t just lead the league in GIFs. Over his career, he’s been the league’s seasonal leader in passing yards, touchdowns, QB rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt (three times!), yards per completion, yards per game, completions, and attempts. He threw his 300th passing touchdown against Miami, making him only the ninth player ever to do so. Everyone else is in the Hall of Fame or soon to be in the Hall of Fame. (Since we’re talking about facial expressions: I can’t wait for Eli’s Canton bust.) And he’s top-15 all time in passing yardage.

Perhaps most amazingly, since being named a starter, Rivers has never missed a single game due to injury. He even played in the 2007 season’s AFC championship with a torn ACL and was ready for Week 1 just eight months later. At a position that snaps bodies like twigs, Rivers’s durability tells of a remarkable combination of physical strength, personal toughness, prudent decision-making, and probably luck.

All in all, Rivers has one of the most impressive statistical careers in NFL history. Few players have played with such high quality at such a high volume for so long.

Do you know how valuable quarterback consistency is? The Texans gave Brock Osweiler a blank check for half a season of barely competent quarterbacking for a team with a historically great defense that happened to win games while he played. The Jets had a two-month-long lover’s quarrel with Ryan Fitzpatrick before realizing they needed him, then watched him throw six interceptions in a single game.

There is a desert of bad quarterbacking, and so many teams are dying of thirst. But the Chargers are safe. The ancient Egyptians realized the desert was bad and built their entire society within a few miles of the Nile, and that’s what the Chargers have done with their … ahem … Rivers, too.

At the start of his career, Rivers was next to LaDainian Tomlinson, a true superstar running back. But as Tomlinson declined and eventually left, the Chargers slowly stripped away any semblance of a running game. In between 2009 and 2015, a Charger failed to break the top 25 in rushing yards five separate times.

Last season, Rivers was San Diego’s only option. He threw 661 passes, the sixth most of all time and most in the NFL. Rivers’s stats were decent, but the team went 4-12.

This year, the Chargers may have already lost their top two receiving options, Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead, but things are different. Melvin Gordon has had a great sophomore season. He leads the league in carries and is earning the workload, including a 196-yard game against the Titans.

But sometimes, in critical situations, the Chargers still default to Rivers. Against Denver, the team got to the 2-yard line down eight with just under three minutes left. Gordon had already set a career high in rushing yards, but the team threw the ball four times with Rivers. He threw four incompletions, and the Chargers turned the ball over on downs.

Against Miami, they got to the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter down by four points. They ran once with Gordon, then had Rivers throw the ball four times. One pass drew a penalty, moving the ball to the 2. But every pass was incomplete, including a backbreaking interception.

In both situations, the young back should have gotten the ball. He has 14 carries on third- and fourth-and-short, and he’s converted first downs on 10 of them. But over and over, the team puts the ball in Rivers’s hand in those scenarios. He has 22 passes on third- and fourth-and-short, and is 10-for-22 with that critical pick.

Rivers is a phenomenal quarterback and the primary reason the Chargers have one of the league’s best offenses. But he’s not perfect — no quarterback is. And as San Diego calls on its last football hero to salvage its sad season, he can’t make everything OK.

Rivers’s most vivid facial expression: the one where it looks like his heart has been broken, but he’s too strong to let anybody know.